A movement never lost: ultralight hiking

Doug Ross


Don’t try to google UL, this movement probably won’t appear on the top of your results page. A way of life more than a way to get from A to B, Ultralight (UL) hiking attracts only the ardent and the few, but this is changing.

Everyone has a strong opinion when it comes to this age-old approach to the simple process of walking, and 'simple' is what it all comes down to. What gear is the right gear? Where did ultralight hiking all begin? How heavy does your pack have to be before you can no longer call it an ultralight hike? There are strong disagreements about a lot of these things, but the passion people feel towards the simplicity and benefits of UL hiking is clear as soon as you talk to them.

What is ultralight hiking? Yes, there are disagreements. But generally lightweight hiking/backpacking is viewed as having a base weight (all that your backpack weighs excluding food) of less than 10kg. Ultralight hiking is seen as having a base weight of under 5kg. Full on, we know. 

And what's the point of it all? It's simple: less load on your body equals less wear and tear. At least, that's the idea. Carefully planned trips that ensure safety underpin the UL philosophy, which is that a lighter load can and does mean travelling greater distances each day while reducing the impact on your body through a lighter load. 

First of all, the idea of ultralight hiking is nothing new. Sure, back when the population of homo sapiens were predominantly nomadic, we were very good at long journeys on foot, with very little on our backs. But walking for pleasure without much gear is also older than you would expect.

Emma Rowena Gatewood was the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail alone in one season. She did it in 1955, at age 67, with little more when she started out than a blanket, raincoat and plastic sheet for cover.

65 years later, ultralight hiking is attracting a growing number of enthusiasts and has its own celebrities.

Andrew Skurka is one such name – an American professional backpacker, famous for ultralight hiking and taking on large projects such as his 2017 Great Western Loop hike of 6,800 miles across North America’s national parks, walking on average 53km per day. He now offers guided intensive treks and tips for beginners. 

In Australia and New Zealand, there is a committed community of UL hikers connected through social channels that share information and inspire one another.

The Ultralight Hiking Australasia Facebook group is a go-to community. A digital club that is still just small enough that all new admissions get their own shout-out when they join, but with enough members to make it a treasure trove of information for those exploring the world of ultralight hiking. 

New South Wales hiker Vern Fitzgerald runs the group. Returning to hiking in 2016, Vern was curious about how gear had evolved over the years and discovered the world of ultralight hiking. 

"I fell in love with it immediately and started passionately telling my friends about it. I love the minimalist approach, the materials and cottage industry production behind the brands."

"The page was originally started for myself and three friends to post our hikes and memories. It very quickly snowballed and opened up the conversation more in Australia I feel.

"I am amazed at how big the group has become. We have seen a real surge of interest in the past couple of years. I am proud to say we are the biggest UL group in Australia and I hope more people get inspired along with gear makers to design and make equipment suited for the sometimes harsh Australian conditions."

UL sleeping systems can weigh less than 2kg

Image: Flickr

Brent Hartnell works six months of the year as a hiking guide, while he has simultaneously built a business (Basic Adventure Tarps), providing lightweight gear designed for UL hiking. 

“It's made the life of a professional guide a lot easier with regard to the wear and tear on the body. Due to the development of lighter gear, we (as guides) can work for longer periods of time and, in turn, earn a better living over the course of a year. UL is a game-changer!”

"The trade-off with UL gear, in a guiding capacity, is that the lighter the product, the more prone to damage/breakage with extended use. Super hi-loft sleeping bags started to lose their warmth efficiency, UL sleeping mats got holes in them faster. UL tents had poles that would snap easier. Basically it did not seem to last as long, so I seemed to be replacing gear on a 12-18 month basis.

"Over the last 2-3 years, there has been a quantum leap forward in UL products (and the technology they use) to make the previous statement a thing of the past. Things like DCF (cuben fibre) and carbon fibre have made products more durable for the heavy toll that guides put on their gear."

“I think what is more important than actual weight is gear that suits you and your experiences," says avid UL hiker Kerry Neighbour. "Going UL on your very first hike seems like a disaster to me. But if you take two years and dozens of hikes to get to UL, then that seems like a good path to me.

"Getting to UL (<5kg) is pretty difficult and usually means a few compromises. Personally, I am happy getting under 10kg or perhaps around 7-8kg. That is light enough for me that I am comfortable. Going less – I get diminishing returns.”


Tips for reducing weight safely on a hike


1. Take baby steps. Not literally, but don't jump straight into UL hiking. It can not only spell a miserable night in the rain, but can potentially be dangerous or life-threatening if you are not prepared. 

2. Make safety paramount. This means never sacrificing on key navigational and safety elements in your packing, i.e. compass, maps, ELBs, water, food, shelter, clothes. You must be confident that you can stay safe on the trail and prepare for getting lost or emergencies (injuries). 

3. Pack and then repack. This is vital for reducing your weight, and will help you identify items that are non-negotiables (see above). 

4. Don't mess with your gear. Some UL proponents recommend cutting seemingly unnecessary straps or sections from your pack etc. Avoid this. Not only may it void your warranty on that gear but UL hiking often means you need gear for all sorts of conditions. Don't limit yourself to one type of hiking condition by eliminating opportunities for added carrying capacity. 

5. Break things up into what you have to have vs what would be nice to have. This will help reduce the risk of not packing safety essentials.

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